Trapped in the amber
“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
I’ve been thinking some more about the theological issues I wrote about in my entry from a few weeks ago, and I keep coming back to that bit of Slaughterhouse-Five. “There is no why.” In this passage, Billy Pilgrim (the hero of the story) is talking to a being from another planet. These beings don’t perceive time the way humans do – instead of perceiving one moment at a time, in a linear fashion, they see all moments in time simultaneously. Everything that has ever happened, and ever will happen, is actually all occurring at once, and has always been occurring. They don’t worship a deity and don’t believe that things happen for a reason. Death isn’t sad because although a person is dead in this particular moment, he or she is still alive in a million other moments. Death is just something that happens, and it is always marked with the (slightly fatalistic) saying, “So it goes.”
The idea that “there is no why,” when I encountered it, was terrifying. I think human beings have a deep, instinctual desire to assign meaning and purpose to their lives and the things that happen around them. We really want there to be a “why,” even if we can’t figure out what it is. As intelligent, self-aware animals, we are capable of analyzing the world on a pretty high level and as a result we can be baffled and terrified by it, because we are inclined to be afraid of things we don’t understand. So, in our fear, we look for a why. If we can just assign a why, it will make sense and our sense of order will be restored. Religion fits that bill extraordinarily well. It enables people to assign a why. We are being rewarded, or punished, or the karmic wheel has made a full circle, or we are being taught something, or at the very least we can shrug and say, “It’s part of God’s plan, and his plan is not always for us to know.” I think there’s an enormous amount of comfort to be drawn from that. So the idea of there being no why is really scary, at least initially. The idea seemed so cynical and bitter to me at first. I had a vague, half-formed concept of the universe (even God-free) still having some kind of order to it – OK, yeah, maybe there is no God that causes this or that thing to happen to us, but maybe what goes around still comes around, and maybe some of us are still “meant” to do certain things, and maybe the “universe” still nudges us in one direction or another. I had let go of the idea of God, but I was not ready to give up that last spiritual remnant. Then I encountered Vonnegut and his aliens, and they knocked me for a loop. I discovered Slaughterhouse-Five during a really difficult time when I was trying to drag myself out of my pit of devastation and not doing a very good job of it (at all), and I was asking a lot of questions that started with why. When something knocks us down we want to know why. Why did this happen, and why does it have to hurt so bad? So I happened to pick up this book in the midst of all this pain and angst, and I stumbled across “Here we are, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why,” and it set me free. Having a why can be immensely comforting, yes, but I also think that when we get knocked down and are lying there dazed, we can be so encumbered by our insistence on figuring out the why that our recovery is hampered. It’s like a weight around our necks that makes getting up again even harder than it already is, or delays our even trying until we figure it out. That was the case with me – I was so obsessed with figuring out why all this nasty stuff had happened to me that I wasn’t really even trying to get past it. So the idea that there wasn’t a why for me to figure out, instead of being scary and bleak, was liberating on a near-miraculous level. The why isn’t really what’s important, it’s the how – as in, how was I going to allow this experience to shape the kind of person I am? Whether I believed in God or not, that was completely within my control, and that was the thing I should be thinking about. Forget why, I decided. Fuck why. It doesn’t matter. Awful things happen to people all the time – good people and bad people alike. So it goes. If we don’t allow ourselves to be bogged down by an obsession with why it happened and instead turn our energies to thinking about what we learned and what we’re going to do now, suddenly we’re empowered. And feeling empowered makes it so much easier to get back on our feet when we’ve been dealt a hard blow.
So in considering this, I think I’m making progress in my attempt to figure out how to live an atheistic existence that isn’t depressing and bleak by default. What are your thoughts?